'The $300 House' Challenge

Bring affordable housing to the world’s poor. $25,000 prize pool

Current Rank: 12
harveylacey
harveylacey
12. Rank7.22 Rating231 Ratings113 Comments23710 ViewsSubmitted on May 21, 2011
Final rank: 12 of 297

Recycled plastic block house

All varieties of plastic trash compacted with a manual compactor into blocks. These blocks are then used to build a structurally superior house. Our first model built for Southern Methodist University cost $250.00 to build.

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Volunteers applying second coat of earthern plaster (Patti Stouter's)Link to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Completed house on display (eandhweek.org)Link to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Plastic blocks tied together to make the first courseLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Each course is made like the bottom course.Link to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Nine courses, approximately 8 feet high wallsLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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House, machines, Ronald Omyonga, and Harvey LaceyLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Loading plastic water bottles to make an Ubuntu-BloxLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Finished plastic water Ubuntu-Blox made with 90 bottles, seven poundsLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Placing the tension tool Link to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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wire properly tensioned with toolLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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foam plastic lunch trays donated by high school studentsLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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foam plastic lunch trays in the manual machine to break up the foamLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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eight blocks made with the foam plastic lunch traysLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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House being winched onto the trailer for the trip from Dallas to Oklahoma CityLink to third-party material or short usage description : harvey lacey photo
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Solution

The system was built with two goals in mind.  The first of course was to provide permanent housing for the poorest of the poor using materials readily available just about any where in the world.


The second goal was to initiate commerce with the process.  The machine used to compact the plastic into blocks could be purchased through micro lending.  That individual would purchase plastic trash from collectors.  The would process it and then sell the blocks to contractors and home builders.

Like all good things this concept comes with unintended consequences.  We clean up the planet while making good houses for those who need them most.

The blocks are made with a manual compactor machine.  No fuel, no electricity, it is all manual.  We hope to have these built in the country where they are used.  This is another industry creating jobs.  It also makes parts and repairs a local operation instead of an international one.

The blocks are held together with wire.  The blocks are connected together with wire.  No polymers, no heat, no fumes in the construction of the blocks or the structure.

The $250.00 cost was for new wire and rebar used to build the house.  The plastic was trash.  The other materials were repurposed (junk)

The building was loaded onto a trailer and hauled 250 miles to the University of Oklahoma.  It is waiting there for structural engineers to test it.  It was tied down to the trailer for the trip by the foundation only.  It survived country boy seventy miles an hour over rough roads testing just fine thank you.

Ubuntu-Blox on facebook ( group and cause)
http://www.eandhweek.org  (check out all the media links on the home page)

I feel I need to add an additional point.

2 billion people experience poverty that is devastating.  It doesn't just make life difficult, it makes it almost impossible. 70 percent of those experiencing this level of poverty are female.

The machine and the tools that come with the machine can all be made and repaired by a competent welder.  Everything involved is designed to replace the need for brute strength with manual dexterity and cleverness.

Look at conventional construction.  It has always been passed down male to male.  It has always depended upon male attributes like strength.  We can look at the earth bags and see this tradition continued.  Few women can handle sixty plus pound bags of earth all day long.  Few women wield a mallet or tamper all day long either.

The tool that tightens the wire around the block can be used by a ninety pound person with ease.  The wire is pulled tight enough to play a tune on because we use leverage instead of strength.  The tool itself is the ultimate in simplicity.

The blocks weigh between 1.2 pounds for the foam and film plastic ones to seven pounds for the ones built with all plastics.  Compare that to eighty pounds for a concrete block, stone block, or sixty pounds for an earthen bag of the same dimensions.

What makes blocks and bags work and have beauty is alignment.  Our blocks are aligned correctly every time because they are tied to guide wires running end to end.  Our system is easier to learn and master.

Earth bags, earth blocks, and recycled plastic blocks all have to be plastered because they won't last exposed to the elements.  Recycled plastic blocks have the additional burden of needing the inside walls to be plastered also.

It takes less recycled plastic blocks to make a house than it takes of earth bags or earth blocks.  The recycled plastic blocks are easier to make and build with due to the light weight.  The recycled plastic blocks provide more R value.

If a country in Africa was to embrace the recycled plastic block houses then their smart people with the calculators could come up with the carbon credits saved versus using conventional materials and methods.  Those carbon credits are soon to be negotiable currency.  That country could turn home building into a profit center for the nation.

I have added three pictures to give some perspective about what it takes in materials to make blocks.  The first photo is of a donation by the 2nd and 3rd period French classes of Ms Sierra's at LD Bell High School in Hurst, TX.  They collected three and a half bags of styrofoam lunch trays and walmart bags they had saved up or got from their parents.

We made a manual machine to grind up the foam plastics because it can be difficult to do with large pieces of styrofoam used for packaging electronic items etc.  The lunch trays were easy to grind up into smaller segments.

The third picture is of eight blocks we made with that material plus some more bags, we use a lot of bags.

We found out the lunch trays were wonderful sources of foam plastic..  They are easy to break up into smaller pieces and three and a half bags gave us much more material to work with than three and a half bags of large pieces of styrofoam would have given us.

There is a method to my madness when it comes to referring to the trash as "trash".  I believe that if we approach people and tell them they can build houses out of that "found"  or "recyclable" material they are going to think we are lying to them because it is "trash".  Once they experience a completed house they will then see that "trash" as "found" or "recyclable" materials.

I understand that people don't want to live in a house made from trash.  Everyone has pride.  I see one of the ways we can convince them that this is a good idea is to first build a public place, library, church, community hall, etc.  When they experience that they will embrace the idea of a house made with it.

1. Definition of the customer problems?
The biggest problem I see for the potential Ubuntu-Blox home owners is real estate.  Even if the foot print is 100 square feet there is the potential issue of who actually owns that 100 square feet and for how long?  One of the interesting things I read about Haiti was houses go through ownership issues every time there is a death.  That's why houses that can be torn down, moved, and reassembled at a new location are desirable there.  I'm sure Haiti isn't alone with this problem.

Another problem they have is what I refer to as the corruption tax.  The corruption tax is the real cost of things after all the percentages are paid at every step of the process.  Anything of value faces this tax.  It might be a bureaucrat being paid off to allow something to happen or product to pass through.  It might be bandits that kidnap products for a ransom.   But the lower you go on the income ladder the greater the percentage of the cost is corruption taxes.
2. How does the design address the customer pain points?
I don't see how our design can deal with the problem with real estate and who actually owns the ground the Ubuntu-Blox house sits on.  But our design is easily disassembled and reassembled.  If a block is damaged it can be incorporated into a new block.  But what we've seen there is no problem with them being recycled intact.  Our homeowner might not have title to the land but they can own the blocks and the blocks are what make that house.

I love that our basic component is something without value.  The corruption tax is going to have to be very creative to impose a cost on the plastic trash that is all over the landscape.

3. What elements of the design are innovative?
Where do I start?  Conventional wisdom is that if you are going to recycle plastic into a building product you need to melt it down to create a new product.  The problem with that is the plastic trash isn't one type of resin and the different resins don't melt together to form a new product.  So the plastics have to be sorted, melted down, and then there is a new problem.  The plastics are contaminated so the new melted resin can only be used for products that don't require purity and strength.  Conventional wisdom is the way around these issues is a polymer that will adhere to all the resins equally well.  Of course then there is the cost of such a magical potion and the reasonable concerns with the fumes that new combination  will emit.

We decided that all plastics can be compressed together to make a building block.  Instead of using a polymer or heat to  make and maintain the shape of the block we use wire.  

Some plastics have too much memory to used in the blocks without being chopped up first to remove that memory.  Styrofoam is a good example.  Very dense Styrofoam like that used to protect electronic products will always return to shape once they are out of the confines of the compactor.  We break it down into small pieces and the memory is gone.  A benefit of using all plastics is we can then put the small pieces of Styrofoam into film plastic bags.  We  can do the same thing with the lids that come on plastic bottles.  We can either put them inside the bottles or we can put them in another container to be compacted into a block.

I woke up November 18th and I had the above solution.  It is not unlike a bale of straw or hay.  Two or three wires can hold the shape just like two or three wires can hold the shape of a bale of hay or straw's shape.  The next challenge was how to hold the blocks in place in a wall.  That was an easy fix.  We had the wire around the blocks.  It could be used to hold the blocks in place too.  All I had to do after that was design a machine that could compact the plastic into a block so that we could secure it with wire. 
4. What are the approximate cost of the house?
The house we built for SMU cost us approximately $250.00.  Half of that was for the wire, there is about twenty feet of wire total in a block including the wire holding the blocks to each other.  The other half of that was for the rebar we purchased and used for the project.

Everything else was free, (found).  The mud was local and the sand and horse manure used with the clay to make the plaster was donated.  The framing for the roof was large pieces of lumber that had been put away for hauling off.  I cut it up to make the framing.  The same thing was true for the pieces of roofing.   It was in a pile on a friend's farm destined for the scrap yard to be sold as scrap tin.

I don't feel it would be fair to price in the steel foundation I used for the building.  That's because it wouldn't be part of a house built in the real world for a real family.  This was a model house and I had to either build it to dismantle and remove or make it movable on a trailer.  I chose to make it capable of being loaded up onto a trailer so I could haul it for the next step in its journey.  That happens to be two hundred and fifty miles from where it was on display.  It will tested and destroyed at that location.  The steel frame that allowed us to  haul it will also be used to secure the building to the floor for testing.

In the real world scenario we would hope for a concrete footer or foundation.  If that isn't possible then the house can still be built and we believe be a good structurally sound home.

The foundation trench would be dug.  Rubble could be used to fill that trench to grate.  Before the rubble is placed in the trench rebar pieces would be driven into the ground at angles.  More rebar would then be tied to those pieces driven into the ground to form a grid to lie in the trench and be covered with the rubble.

We can't over emphasize the importance of a good foundation, concrete or rubble.  That's because what makes this house so substantial structurally is the wire that goes from one side of the foundation over the top plate of the wall and down the other side to the foundation.  This wire is always post tensioned after the wall is built.

The rebar doesn't have to be new to be used.  It doesn't even have to be long pieces to be used.  So in places like Haiti where the used rebar should be able to be purchased for scrap or just above scrap price the cost of the house should reflect this.

Anecdotal evidence has shown us the combination of rebar and wire connecting the blocks together gives us a structure that handles vibration very well.  The best way I can describe the reason for this is to compare the way a chainlink fence handles a seismic event versus the way a concrete structure does.  

Our structure requires less rebar than a comparable one built with concrete, earthbags, or compressed earth blocks.  That's because the bulk of the connection is mechanical instead of friction or adhesive.  

Plus there is this thing called mass.  When we built the Ubuntu-Blox house for SMU we decided to make a statement.  We could have used all kinds of plastic.  However, we have curbside recycling in north Texas.  They take all plastics but foam and film.  So we decided to only use foam and film plastics in our blocks.  Our blocks weighed between 1.2 to 1.5 pounds each.  The variance came from using a lot of loose film plastics int a block.  Film plastic weighs more than foam plastics does.

Our walls were nine courses, about ninety inches high.  Do your math, nine times 1.3 then times .70.  Nine courses with each block being 17.5 inches long for the .70.  That's 8.19 pounds per running foot of wall.  The other options like earth bags, compressed earth blocks, or concrete blocks would run what, fifty times that at least?

We don't need as much rebar to maintain stability, thank you very much.

Don't let the thought of low mass allow you to think the wall isn't strong.  One of the challenges we gave visitors was to push on the walls.  Even before we put on the plaster the walls were very rigid.  Keep in mind, the post tensioning is important.  It changes a wall of pillows into a wall of compressed plastic which creates structural stability.

There is the cost of the wire.  It can be substantial.  I bought twelve gauge galvanized fence wire in hundred pound coils.  They were about $75.00 each for a little over three thousand feet.  That comes out to $.025 per foot and figure an average of twenty feet of wire per block.

We've since came to the conclusion that fourteen gauge wire will work just as well.  If the wire is bought be the ton then the price per foot drops into fractions of a cent per foot.

Let's say a charity wanted to stretch their dollars.  They provide the wire.  That means the cost of the blocks is the cost of the plastic, free or scrap plastic price.  Foam and film plastics have so little value that they are not recycled curbside here in the states.  The going rate I heard in Haiti  for bottles is .05 per pound.  A block consisting of foam, film, and bottles would be less than twenty cents per pound plastic value.  Our 8.5 foot by 12.5 foot house had approximately two hundred and seventy blocks.

Here's a video that shows how it is done.  http://youtu.be/qxQ-aJWzwsU

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